, August 2006
Segovia was not the first important classical guitarist in modern times. He had a number of competitors during his long career. Even so he is still regarded as the single person who put the guitar on the classical music map. To at least the classical music public he became synonymous with guitar music. What he undoubtedly did, besides popularizing the instrument, was two-fold: he introduced Bach and other older masters to modern audiences and he commissioned and performed music by his contemporaries. This disc covers both aspects. In spite of some audio-technical limitations to the general listener these tracks can be enjoyed without too much adjustment to “murky” sound. The guitar’s narrow dynamic range fits well into the technique of the time. It has to be said though, as producer David Lennick points out in a footnote, that the Musicraft recordings were renowned for bad surfaces. Although the restoration team has done its best there is still a fair amount of “bacon-frying”, notably on the Chaconne (track 7). It is noticeable but not particularly disturbing but then I have for many years indulged in historical recordings and have grown tolerant. Anyone at all interested in Segovia or just plain guitar music need not worry.
When it comes to the playing I made the same observations about the Bach tracks as I did about corresponding music on a Wanda Landowska disc of roughly the same vintage. Performing styles have changed considerably since the 1940s and 1950s. With authentic performance practice in mind both Landowska and Segovia can appear too romantic with their rubato playing as opposed to a more strict adherence to basic tempo. I don’t find it a problem at all; today we can accept more than one approach to this timeless music. The Bouree (tr 4) is a bit four-square; on the other hand the Gavotte (tr 5) is exquisite in its lightness and almost improvisatory execution. Likewise the other Gavotte (tr 8) - the well-known piece from Lute Suite No. 4, which in its turn is derived from Partita No. 3 for solo violin. Especially to older listeners it will be known in Kreisler’s arrangement for violin and piano. It sounds fluent and delicious here. Most impressive of all is the nimble finger-work in the great Chaconne (tr. 7).
The two Villa-Lobos etudes are always pleasing to hear; No 1 (tr 10) is a tour de force. From Moreno Torroba’s Suite Castellana, written for Segovia, he recorded two of the three movements, presented here in reversed order. The slow movement, Arada, has a theme reminiscent of Nino Rota’s Gelsomina theme from La Strada, lyrical, melancholy. The Fandanguillo is airy and fluent with nicely pointed rhythms. Turina also wrote a Fandanguillo, which is colourful and employs a lot of inventive playing techniques. Composed in 1925 it seems to have been one of Segovia’s favourite pieces. This and most of the Columbia sides have an amazing clarity, compared to the dimmer Musicraft sound. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Tarantella from 1936 is rhythmically exciting and Segovia plays it with superior verve. The three-movement Sonata Meridional by Manuel Ponce, whom Segovia had met in Paris, probably evokes more of the composer’s native Mexico than of Spain, which Segovia had wished, but it is idiomatically written for the instrument.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote his first Guitar Concerto for Segovia just before the outbreak of WW2. Soon afterwards the composer left Italy for the US, where he settled in Hollywood, earning his salt as a composer of music for the movies. The first movement of the concerto is a jolly carefree tune that might have been from the soundtrack of a vagabond film, the main character walking with a swagger in the sun, humming or whistling. The slow movement is beautifully melancholy, maybe, as Colin Cooper suggests in his excellent notes, “a touching farewell to the Tuscan countryside that he loved so well and would soon be leaving”. The finale breathes Spain. The New London Orchestra plays well under Alec Sherman, even though the recording leaves something to be desired.
Segovia continued to make recordings long after this but maybe he was at the height of his powers during this period. This disc should be a worthy addition to any respectable collection of guitar music, not least since much of this music was very close to his heart.